It’s 6:30 p.m. in eastern Arizona, and an energetic doctor who has gained notice due to his disdain for vaccinations has just gotten home. It’s been a busy day. He’s already spoken to USA Today. He just did a segment on CNN. And he’s closely monitored his Facebook page, which has collected 4,000 “likes” in the span of 48 hours. But Jack Wolfson always has time to discuss vaccinations — his hatred of them and his abhorrence of the parents who defend them.
“Don’t be mad at me for speaking the truth about vaccines,” Wolfson said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. “Be mad at yourself, because you’re, frankly, a bad mother. You didn’t ask once about those vaccines. You didn’t ask about the chemicals in them. You didn’t ask about all the harmful things in those vaccines…. People need to learn the facts.”
But whose facts is he talking about? Every respectable expert totally disagrees with him and his anti-vaccine movement and, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urges parents to get their kids vaccinated. And Wolfson himself, who has quickly become something of a spokesman for the anti-vaxxers, is in no way an expert on vaccines or infectious diseases. He’s cardiologist who now does holistic medicine.
What the experts say: “The measles vaccine is one of the most highly effective vaccines that we have against any virus or any microbe, and it is safe, number one,” Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CBS. “Number two, measles is one of the top two most contagious infectious viruses that we know of…. So you have a highly infectious virus and you have an extraordinarily effective vaccine.”
Wolfson, who himself lives in a state now affected by the California measles outbreak that many blame on the anti-vaccination movement, does nonetheless prove the power of assuming a contrarian stance. The controversy has transformed Wolfson — last week, just another doctor — into a hero for those who share his views. “Thank you for breathing truth into all of the B.S. out there,” one fan wrote him on Facebook. “Wish all doctors were like you.”
Then there are the critics. Of which there are many. “I’ll be sending a copy of your highly irresponsible and reckless comments to the Arizona Medical Board for review,” one said. “As a pediatrician who has seen unvaccinated children die from vaccine preventable diseases and also seen whooping cough go through my practice area in 2013 thanks to declining vaccination rates, you do not deserve to hold a license to practice medicine in AZ.”
Weeks ago, someone infected with measles at Disneyland sparked an outbreak that has so far infected at least 84 people in 14 states, according to the CDC, many of whom weren’t vaccinated. In Wolfson’s Arizona, as many as 1,000 people, including 200 children, have potentially been exposed to the disease, and seven are infected.
Amid this outbreak, Wolfson actively urges people to avoid vaccines. “We should be getting measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, these are the rights of our children to get it,” he told the Arizona Republic. “We do not need to inject chemicals into ourselves and into our children in order to boost our immune system.” He added: “I’m a big fan of what’s called paleo-nutrition, so our children eat foods that our ancestors have been eating for millions of years…. That’s the best way to protect.”
Wolfson is the latest incarnation of a trend that long precedes him. Those wary of vaccinations have always latched onto any doctor who affirms their reservations, regardless of the absence of research supporting them. Before Wolfson, there was Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopath who long inveighed against vaccinations and just canceled an Australian tour, citing fears of “anti-free speech terrorists” and “pro-vaccine extremists.” And before Tenpenny, there was Britain’s Andrew Wakefield, who authored a study — since retracted — linking autism to vaccines. After it was thoroughly discredited, it cost him his medical license. But it also got him a following.
Which is something that’s happening to Wolfson, too. “I’m getting inundated from all over the country from people who are coming to support me,” he said. “There are a lot of people in our corner.”
It began last week when Wolfson did an interview for NBC Phoenix — and another, quoted above, for the Arizona Republic, which got more than 30,000 “likes” on Facebook. “Valley doctor: Don’t vaccinate your kids,” the headline said.
Following the ensuing outrage, he addressed his critics in Health Impact News. It was shared on Facebook 110,000 times.
Wolfson himself came to his anti-vaccination stance late in life. “I’m the son of a cardiologist,” he told The Post. “I was trained to believe in the power of vaccines…. And going through school, as a medical student you don’t question anything. You don’t question what’s going on.” Then in 2002, Wolfson, originally from Chicago, moved to Arizona where he met his wife, a chiropractor, who “opened my eyes.”
He said he soon embraced “natural and holistic” medicine. That was when he started challenging vaccines. He said viruses — not vaccines — are a part of the natural world. “Unfortunately, they mean that some people get sick and some people die,” he said. “But the reality is that we can’t inject our children with chemicals.”
Measles isn’t a big deal, he said, though the CDC definitely disagrees. “This quote-unquote ‘outbreak’ has infected 70 people who are quote-unquote ‘infected,’ ” he said. “This is a country of 300 million people, and no one has died, and no one is sick as far as I know. We are all worried, and we are all getting crazy, and what we’re talking about is really just a fever and a rash.”